Few cities in America are feeling the cultural changes of urban immigration as rapidly and intensely as Minnesota’s capital of St. Paul.
The Mexican, Chinese and African American community of Minnesota has been present for over a century, with Japanese and Taiwanese communities emerging in the past half century. However, it has been the past 20 years that the tapestry of St. Paul and Minneapolis has transformed from its largely Irish, German and Scandinavian feel to include a quadrupling of the Asian and Pacific Islander community, particularly the Southeast Asians, and more recently the growing immigrant Africans, Latin Americans and East Europeans.
The pulse of this change is highly visible along University Avenue, a six-mile thoroughfare that connects the University of Minnesota campus with the state Capitol complex.
Internationally acclaimed photographer Wing Young Huie spent three years chronicling the colliding and evolving American experience on University Avenue, a jammed stretch of storefronts, taverns, big-box retailers, blue-collar neighborhoods and condominium communities.
The result, “The University Avenue Project,” opened May 1 as a gallery of 500 photographs exhibited in store windows and on buildings along the six miles of University Avenue between the Minneapolis border and the state Capitol. At the center of the project is a spectacular installation site where images will be projected nightly on billboard-size screens, accompanied by recorded soundtracks from local musicians and monthly live performances.
Blending documentary photography with revelatory statements by his subjects, Wing has created a tapestry of words and images raising complex issues of race, class, gender, sexual preference, immigration, religion and cultural disconnection.
Presented by Public Art Saint Paul, the exhibition will run through Oct. 31.
Wing’s subjects responded to one of several questions, including: What are you? How do you think others see you? What advice would you give a stranger? And How has race affected you?
Their answers, chalked on blackboards, reveal the hopes, dreams and fears of Americans new and old, all striving to make their way in a complex, vital urban community.
“This is not only a six-mile public art exhibition,” said Huie. “This is a six-mile classroom that explores the changing cultural landscape of urban life in St. Paul.”
Thousands of students from kindergarten through college will engage with the project. Working with a team of educational advisers, University Avenue Project organizers have developed a range of educational activities for use in schools and universities.
The entire project also will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as an affordable, magazine-like book in two volumes during 2010. The first volume, available on May 1, gives an in-depth look at the exhibit itself. The second volume, available in August, will focus on the interaction of viewers with the exhibit during its run.
Unprecedented in its scope and ambition, the University Avenue Project and its subjects carry messages for every community in a rapidly changing America.
This project stands as a testament to the value of art that engages and inspires community connection and reflection. We invite you to share the messages of this exciting and important public art project with your audience.
Huie creates societal mirrors of who and what we are becoming, seeking to reveal not only what is hidden, but also what is plainly visible yet seldom noticed.
Born in Duluth as the youngest son of a Chinese immigrant family, Huie said he is fascinated by race and immigration. He said this project marks a significant moment in Minnesota in recognizing this new cultural identity that goes beyond Paul Bunyan and Lake Wobegon to present other citizens in the mix.
Huie has received international acclaim for his projects documenting his home state of Minnesota. Published collections of his work include Frogtown: Photographs and Conversation in an Urban Neighborhood; Lake Street USA; and Looking for Asian America: An Ethnocentric Tour.
Three years in the making, this project is certain to be among the most ambitious public art exhibitions in the nation this year. More than 450 photos will be displayed in businesses, schools and churches along this six-mile stretch of road; some will be building-size, as large as 30 feet tall. There will also be nightly screenings of the photos with a soundtrack by Twin Cities musicians and monthly live performances associated with the exhibition. www.theuniversityavenueproject.com